A Sense Of Fair Play?

Mike Ashley Newcastle UnitedEarlier this week, after months of behind the scenes moves, Mike Ashley secured the Ibrox boardroom, although he owns little more than 10% of the club.

This would not have been possible without the connivance of the SFA, who have allowed him to move into a position of genuine strength, although their rules and regulations expressly forbade such a thing.

Take a look at those regulations for a moment.

They are quite explicit that no-one involved with a Scottish football club should have any involvement with another team, yet Ashley has been allowed to ride roughshod over this, with the consequences we now see.

A businessman from England, who already owns a club there, now has the power to turn Ibrox Stadium into his own private advertising board.

Bloodshed in the boardroom has already seen two directors sent on their way.

There are rumours yet that the manager is only a few bad results from his own Day with Destiny.

The fans are, rightly, very concerned about all of it. But there is nothing they can do at this point.

Ashley is a billionaire, genuinely possessing “off the radar wealth.”

There is no move they can make that will intimidate him, and the idea of “starving out” a guy whose companies make £2.2 billion a year is preposterous.

The club needs money. It needs it like a drowning man needs a rubber ring.

With King still playing games and refusing to buy shares, and with a business plan that sounds like something out of a fans fairy-tale and Brian Kennedy drifting into, and out of, the picture from nowhere, for reasons passing all understanding, Ashley is the Last Man Standing.

The SFA could have prevented this farce, with all of its worrying precedents, but their Fit & Proper Person criteria is a shambles.

Take King, for example. He fails on not one count but on two, because of his time on the board of the oldco Rangers, and by virtue of his tax convictions in South Africa.

The SFA could have stated, publicly, what we all know to be fact – that he would be unable to take a boardroom position with the club – but they have remained silent, whilst offering overtures to him.

The general feeling, the accepted wisdom, is that if the time came and he made his move they would look the other way.

Why do the SFA bother with a rule book, if entire sections of it can be thrown out the window?

Why not just have a board of governors that makes it up as they go along?

A lot of people think this is nit picking. It isn’t. What the SFA is doing here is creating a general disrespect for the rules, and that is not healthy for either the club concerned or for Scottish football in the main.

The Ibrox fans have already seen one version of their club sink without a trace, because of the unscrupulous behaviour of an owner who the Internet Bampots had already exposed as a crook and a charlatan before he even had the keys in his hands.

The SFA prefers to let the club’s police themselves, a notion that has failed everywhere it’s been tried from the bankers to oil companies.

Football owners are supposed to consider the good of their clubs, and to inform the SFA if they don’t think their backgrounds, or conduct, does justice to that … and I trust I don’t have to point out the glaring, armoured division sized hole in that?

Self-regulation is a travesty, and it is dangerous for a game in Scotland which is still reeling from the consequences of the Craig Whyte era.

Major competitions are still without sponsors. The Ibrox club teeters on a new precipice.

Even at Celtic, the CEO talks about how the absence of a club called Rangers has cost them millions. The game can ill afford another explosion over there.

They need money. They have spent their way from a cash surplus in the aftermath of the Charles Green share issue to the very edge of administration.

Some said they were only 48 hours away from that grisly, and costly, fate when Ashley secured their immediate safety with his emergency loan.

It will barely last two months. What they do after that is anyone’s guess, but if it involves more Ashley loans then his control over the club is only going to increase.

How the Hell did it come to this? Part of the SFA’s regulatory framework is to get up-to-date accounting information from the clubs every year.

They allowed the position at Ibrox to drift inexorably towards the rocks for the last two years.

There is not a person in this country who does not know that the club is spending way beyond its means … and with no bank to shortstop them, and no-one willing to slam on the brakes, a moment like this was always going to come.

Many of us who’ve studied this matter online have been expecting it for a very long time now.

Recently, I published a similar piece to this which highlighted the failures of the SFA fit and proper person test, failures which would exist even if they did not simply ignore the provisions of it whenever it suited them.

During that article, I mentioned the gathering evidence that links international wanted man, Interpol fugitive Rafat Rizvi to these on-going shenanigans. This was little commented on at the time, but there was a deadly serious point to my using his name and the information relating to him. I had hoped (and try not to laugh) that someone in the mainstream press would have set off to investigate these links (all the work was done for them after all), but to no avail.

The silence continues to be deafening, which is odd as his part in all this has not fully been explored and might even still be on-going. How would we know?

There was a much more serious issue raised in that piece though, and it was the one The Rangers Standard highlighted in their outstanding scoop; that the Interpol fugitive had drawn the attention of SOCA, and the club were getting antsy about it.

The idea that the club was drawing the attention of the Scottish Organised Crime Agency should have chilled the blood of every person in the halls of power at Hampden, because they have left the door wide open with this self-regulation nonsense for any manner, and all manner, of dark possibilities, everything from money launderers using Scottish clubs to the kind of hive off, and asset strip, Craig Whyte was certainly planning if the wheels hadn’t come off early.

It is a matter of time – if it hasn’t already happened – before someone buys a controlling interest in a Scottish football club and starts using it as a vehicle to hide the proceeds of criminal enterprises.

So much of our game here is still a cash business.

Many are run by families or small groups of people. Even those traded on the Stock Exchange aren’t immune from this, because, like the Ibrox club, many of them operate on AIM, without the same regulations that govern the LSE.

Indeed, even when the rules on fit and proper persons are imposed, the SFA does not have the stomach for imposing tough sanctions, especially when the alternative is to watch a club drift into difficult waters.

Look at the case of Giovanni De Stefano, who in 1999 was on the verge of buying 30% of Dundee, before his friendships with Arkan and other Serbian war criminals became public. The club rejected his bid, and he wandered off to try his hand elsewhere.

But he remerged in 2003, and in August of that year he was put on their board of directors. By November, with criminal investigations piling up around him, the SFA took action, and refused to ratify the decision. That didn’t stop him, and he was at the club for another three months, offering them short term loans similar to those being offered by Ashley.

It was never going to last, but as long as it did the SFA were content to stamp their feet on the side-lines and nothing more. Like Ashley, he was quite literally keeping on the lights.

In the end, when the money stopped coming, the Dundee board actually demanded his resignation in January of the following year, and marched headlong into the brewing trouble his policies had been storing up. It hit them like a train. Their financial troubles saw them lay off 15 players and they spiralled down from there.

See, this is what it all comes back to … football clubs and their seemingly inexhaustible need to spend money, often money they don’t have.

The number of Scottish clubs to have entered administration in recent years is truly shocking. Dundee, Dunfermline, Hibs, Hearts, Motherwell, Livingston, Falkirk … all have suffered this ignominious fate. Gretna and Rangers were liquidated. The reasons for this have little to do with harsh financial conditions as much as they have to do with the insane way these clubs chose to act during them, and sometimes this dance with the devil doesn’t teach clubs who fall prey to the hard realities any real lessons.

Take Dunfermline. No sooner have they got back on their feet but they are spending their way towards the next melt-down.

Football follows no law of logic. It is ruled by chaos theory, which is why the governing bodies need to impose some kind of order from above. In Scotland, the SFA has simply been unwilling, or unable, to show that level of leadership, even when one very clear course of action is obvious; some form of Financial Fair Play in Scotland.

In England, they take this stuff seriously, and their game is awash with money. There, chairmen and managers and fans alike have embraced these measures as a stabilising force.

Here, in Scotland, where the spending of every penny is a sacrifice, it is hard to imagine that many clubs would not, in some way, welcome FFP regulations becoming the norm for clubs.

There are punishments for FFP breaches which would have some impact. Points deductions are serious stuff, and clubs treat them accordingly. Withdrawal of European football licenses would keep even the most recalcitrant sides from crossing certain lines, and banning them from domestic cup competitions would hit them hard.

All of this could be done, and it should be done. Once clubs realised that the era of the sugar daddy was over, once people like King were no longer able to spin them fantasises of carrying debts over whilst lavishing spending to buy success, there would be a return to some kind of reality.

Even at my own club, Celtic, some of the bitching in the stands would stop, as the club would be obliged to keep losses below a certain percentage of turnover, or suffer the consequences.

Consequences are coming regardless. The longer the SFA continues to allow clubs to run their own affairs, without proper scrutiny, the deeper into the hole many of our teams are going to get. Money leeches out of football clubs like a vampire bat drinks blood, but it’s because we’ve allowed a culture of spending to establish itself, and get out of control.

Financial fair play will allow clubs to budget reasonably, and face the fans with openness, instead of hiding the truth from them and hoping problems will go away.

The SFA needs to take its governance responsibilities more seriously, and impose the kind of punishments that will act as realistic deterrents. There ought to be point deductions for failures to make full financial disclosures. Licensing regulations need to be re-drafted so that shadowy holding companies are forced to reveal themselves, on pain of cup bans.

Financial fair play would go further than any of this, of course. No-one is asking clubs to break even. That seems too much to wish for. But limiting losses to a certain amount over a three or four year period – as they do in Europe, and this is one of the measures that makes a nonsense out of all this talk about the Ibrox club finding a new sugar daddy – would keep them from falling into the abyss.

Clubs which go into administration anyway should be automatically relegated, or you get the perverse situation where a club might overspend its way to safety, taking a points hit that makes no difference whatsoever to their position in the league. This almost happened at Ibrox last year, and it would have been a humiliating affair for the Scottish game had it come about.

Administration rules should be rewritten so they don’t allow for a “short sharp shock” and then a return to business as usual. The current rules on transfer embargos should be extended beyond the period of the administration itself, and signing restrictions and wage caps as percentages of turnover should be introduced for those clubs who can’t get a grip.

Every club would need to play by the same set of rules. It would avoid a situation like the one faced by clubs in League One this season, who have to contend with a Dunfermline team that is being rebuilt on the never never, only months after they recovered from a flirtation with death.

Football is a false economy, but in many ways the notion of competition is also false.

Things have to change.

(This article features in Issue 2 of All In The Game magazine, out tomorrow. The magazine, and this site, depend on donations, which is why every person who gives money will get a subscription to it. On Fields of Green is an evolving project, and we need your assistance to do it. Please give a thought to helping us if you can.)

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James Forrest

James Forrest is a writer and blogger from Glasgow, and the author of two books, Fragments and Believers, which are available on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “A Sense Of Fair Play?

  • 30 October, 2014 at 7:52 pm
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    There’s no doubt action is needed, but you have no chance of Regan, Doncaster or the odious Ogilvie coming out from under the blankets.

    SPFL? Who are these professionals? Couldnae run a raffle, and I’ll say yet again, we have a major employee working with that crew, WTF is he doing?

  • 30 October, 2014 at 10:14 pm
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    Maybe if they had did what was suggested in the seventies we would not be in this situation,i.e. AMALGAMATION.
    If this had happened we would probably have ended up with maybe two leagues of 14 clubs in each league,and we would probably have a flourishing football environment.There are too many clubs in Scotland,and not enough supporters to sustain 42 clubs.

  • 30 October, 2014 at 10:46 pm
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    When did Hibs go into administration?

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